By Ross Forman
Windy City Times
Esera Tuaolo walked onto the fabled grass at Wisconsin’s Lambeau Field Sept. 14 to sing the national anthem before the Green Bay Packers’ home opener against the New York Jets. He wore a green Packers jersey with No. 98 on it and admittedly was both excited and nervous. In addition to his performance, the team’s pregame ceremony included a video tribute to the 200th anniversary of the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and there was a fly-over before the game and a standing-room-only crowd.
Tuaolo was doing something he had done before — in that same setting, wearing the same uniform. Tuaolo, who played in the NFL from 1991-99, spent two seasons with the Packers in the early 1990s — and he sang the national Aathem at Lambeau Oct. 17, 1991, as a rookie before a game against the Chicago Bears.
Tuaolo, who played at Oregon State University before being selected by Green Bay in the second-round of the 1991 NFL draft, was deep in the closet during the ’91 performance.
Tuaolo is now a proud, openly gay man — and the Packers still wanted him back, to sing and to honor him and other former players during the team’s alumni weekend. It was his first trip back to Lambeau Field since coming out publicly as gay in 1999.
“It was very special, and walking into that stadium as an openly gay man was absolutely amazing,” he said. “And to see and hear the support of [about] 80,000 fans was overwhelming and very emotional.”
The moment also was very surreal for the former gridiron star, whose career included time with five teams before he stepped off the field after the 1999 season with the Carolina Panthers.
“That probably was one of the best [renditions of the] national anthem I’ve ever done,” said Tuaolo, who left the field to cheers and countless high-fives from fans. “It was really nice for people to see me for who I really am.”
Tuaolo, now 46 and living in Minnesota, has seemingly come full-circle. He’s no longer hiding his sexual orientation behind his pads, weighed down by fear, nerves and perhaps guilt. His smile is now ever-present and sincere.
“We’re now definitely living in a different time, [largely] due to education that the LGBT community has put out there,” he said.
Tuaolo, who was born in Honolulu, is one of the most prominent figures in the LGBT sports community. He’s an advocate, outspoken in support of all gay rights and one of the few gays who also can call themselves a professional athlete.
In football, for instance, that list starts with David Kopay, who in 1975 became one of the first pro athletes to come out. He was an All-American running back at the University of Washington in 1961 who then was signed by the San Francisco 49ers. He played professional football from 1964-72.
His 1977 biography, “The David Kopay Story,” was a bestseller — and a key factor in Tuaolo’s life, among others.
“David Kopay didn’t realize that what he did [by coming out] in the 1970s helped so many, [including] myself, Michael Sam and so, so many others. And I hope when I came out, it too helped others,” Tuaolo said.
Other high-level, now-out football players include Justin Fashanu, Kwame Harris, Conner Mertens, Michael Sam, Roy Simmons, Jerry Smith and Wade Davis. All — except Mertens, who is a current out college player, and Sam, who could become the first out active NFL player — came out after retiring from the sport. Davis, who played preseason games in the NFL and then in NFL Europe, is now the executive director of the You Can Play project, a social-activism campaign dedicated to eliminating homophobia in sports, based around the slogan, “If you can play, you can play.”
The You Can Play campaign was launched March 4, 2012, in honor of the death of Brendan Burke, a gay team manager for the Miami University (Ohio) hockey team and the son of longtime NHL executive Brian Burke.
The mainstream sports world has a long history linked to the gay community, dating back decades. But mainstream sports also has, without question, been the tallest mountain for the LGBT community to scale.
A year after Kopay came out, an English figure skater, John Curry, came out and became the first openly gay athlete to win Olympic gold.
Then, in 1977, Renée Richards won a lawsuit against the U.S. Tennis Association because she was barred as a transwoman from competing as a woman in the 1976 U.S. Open.
In 1981, Billie Jean King was outed by her ex-lover, Marilyn Barnett. That same year, fellow tennis sensation Martina Navratilova came out as a lesbian in an article in the New York Daily News. King and Navratilova are two of the greatest tennis players of all time.
In 1982, the inaugural multi-sport Gay Games was held in San Francisco. It was started by an openly gay former U.S. Olympic decathlete, Dr. Tom Waddell.
“In the gay community, people such as David Kopay, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King and so many others … it is absolutely necessary for us to remember all of those people who were the trailblazers, those people who laid down their lives, their blood so the younger generation can be who they are,” Tuaolo said. “David Kopay is my hero, my rock. If I didn’t read his book in 1996, I probably would be dead right now — and I’m not joking about that. For him to have been brave in the 1970s and try to educate people, he really was the brave one, amid death threats and so much more.”
Tuaolo met Kopay for the first time shortly after coming out. It was at Kopay’s Southern California home, “and I cried like a little baby because the impact he had on my life was absolutely amazing. I could never re-pay him for what he did — for me and so many others.
“David Kopay deserves so much more respect and admiration [from the gay community] than what he now gets.”
Kopay, who was born in Chicago, was a running back at the University of Washington who then played in the NFL from 1964-72. He rushed for 876 career yards and scored three career touchdowns. Kopay’s career included stints with five teams, most notably the San Francisco 49ers.
The 1990s featured the coming out of former NFL player Roy Simmons and former Major League Baseball player Glenn Burke.
Burke died of complications from AIDS two years after coming out, yet his legacy is seen almost daily in the sports world and beyond — he is credited with inventing the high-five. Burke also was honored at the 2014 Major League Baseball All-Star Game.
Olympic diver Greg Louganis came out in 1994 and a year later, Ian Roberts, one of Australia’s most popular rugby players, came out. In 1996, elite-level figure skater Rudy Galindo did the same.
In 1998, LPGA Hall of Famer Patty Sheehan came out as a lesbian and, that same year, Billy Bean also came out as gay. Bean played Major League Baseball from 1987-1995, and earlier in 2014 he was hired by MLB as its new “Ambassador for Inclusion.”
“As a community, we definitely have evolved, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. But it’s still better than 15 or 20 years ago,” Tuaolo said. “Every time a pro athlete comes out, as well as college and high -chool athletes, it definitely helps the cause.”
The coming-outs continued at a faster pace in the 2000s, as well as the denials that someone is gay. New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza, for instance, held a press conference to announce he is straight.
In 2004, golf sensation Rosie Jones came out, and the following year basketball star Sheryl Swoopes did the same. (Years later, Swoopes revealed she was engaged to a man.)
In 2006, Gay Games VII was held in Chicago and the inaugural World OutGames was held weeks later in Montreal — truly showcasing the size of the gay community and its passion for sports.
In 2007, John Amaechi became the first former NBA player to come out. And when fellow former NBA player Tim Hardaway told a radio station “I hate gay people,” it led to swift consequences, including firing by the basketball team he was coaching.
In 2008, the gay world was awash in Matthew Mitcham mania as the Australian, who was the only openly gay man competing at the Beijing Summer Olympics, captured gold.
Then, in 2009, Sherri Murrell became the first out lesbian coach in NCAA Division I basketball.
“It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come” for gays in the sports world, Tuaolo said. “Over the last 10 years, we’ve definitely come forward and the response from society as a whole is that it is not an LGBT issue anymore; it is an equality issue.”
Since 2010, it truly has been a flood of LGBTs-in-sports — and unprecedented support for LGBT rights by straight allies in sports, such as Ben Cohen and Hudson Taylor, who each launched organizations in 2011 for the cause.
Kye Allums was the first openly transgender person to play for a women’s college basketball team, and Fallon Fox is an openly transgender mixed martial-arts competitor.
In professional women’s sports, it has always been slightly easier to be out, but still a long road. Leigh-Ann Naidoo was out as a women’s beach volleyball player for South Africa in the 2004 Olympics, and Megan Rapinoe and Abby Wambach are now out soccer players. Speaking of soccer, Robbie Rogers last year became the first openly gay active male soccer player in the United States.
Jason Collins made history when he came out on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and later, when he was picked up by the Brooklyn Nets basketball team, he became the first openly gay male player in one of the nation’s four major men’s sports.
In 2011, Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir finally confirmed what had long been speculated — that he is gay.
Coming-outs over the past few years have also included pro-sports team presidents (Rick Welts), prominent sports writers (Steve Buckley) and more. Lesbian businesswoman Laura Ricketts was already out when her family purchased the Chicago Cubs baseball team.
In early 2014, Michael Sam came out. A former college football standout, he is hoping to become the first active, out NFL player. Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams, ultimately released by the Rams and then signed to the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad.
Sam dreams of stepping onto an NFL field. The entire gay community walks alongside him.
“When I see Michael Sam coming out, I think it’s definitely a step forward for the LGBT community in the sports realm,” Tuaolo said. “When did you think that an openly gay man would be drafted into the NFL? That’s progress.
“It was amazing that Michael Sam came out, but look, if he hadn’t come out [before being drafted, Sam] would have been a first- or second-round [draft] pick, flat out. But, him coming out and living his truth, [pushed him into] the last round of the draft, which I thought was ridiculous,” Tuaolo said. “That was a step backwards, especially for the in-the-closet college athlete who wanted to come out. Now they likely are questioning whether or not they should come out because if that’s what happened to Michael Sam, that probably will happen to me, too.
“That said, we are moving forward in the right direction.”
So where will the LGBT community stand in sports in, say, five years?
It won’t be an issue at all, Tuaolo contended. LGBTs will be playing in the major, male team sports, and coming-outs won’t be national news.
“Back in the day, being gay in sports was a shameful and a bad thing. But slowly it has progressed so that being gay is not a bad thing, not a shameful thing.”
Ross Forman is a sports reporter for Windy City Times. He also covers the sports beat for other mainstream media, and is involved as an official and participant in gay and straight sports leagues.